Make the most of your time in the Land of the Rising Sun
From ancient castles and temples, manicured gardens and parks, to busy, modern cities, Japan's many faces can keep travelers occupied from dawn to dusk and late into the night every day of a week-long trip. To make the most of this enchanting and intriguing destination, stick to must-see and must-do places and activities and steer clear of the tourist traps.
Do: book transportation
Whether traveling by car, train or plane in Japan, a little preparation before leaving home helps smooth your passage. Overseas visitors require an International Driver's Permit to drive in Japan, and they must apply for the permit in their own country. Similarly, the Japan Rail Pass is ideal for taking advantage of Japan's extensive and efficient rail network when venturing outside Tokyo, but it's only available for purchase overseas. However, though Japan's famous Shinkansen trains whip their passengers from one side of Japan to another in record time, flying might make the best use of your time for a one-week vacation, so check out those domestic flights before you go.
Do's: in Tokyo
Tokyo is the arrival point for most overseas visitors in Japan, and it's possible to spend an entire one-week vacation only exploring Japan's capital city.
For a glimpse of old Tokyo, wander the streets of Asakusa, where the atmosphere of the old city lingers. Visit Sensoji, a Buddhist temple built in the 7th century and browse the traditional snacks and souvenirs offered on the adjacent street, Nakamise. To see the temple at its busiest with Japanese worshippers, go there a day or two after New Year's Day. Next, contrast the old with the new by visiting Akihabara, where Japan's massive love affair with anime and manga is on display. Another center of youth culture is Shibuya, which is a showcase for burgeoning entertainment and fashion trends. When the hustle and bustle get too much, head to Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo's largest park. If you time your visit to late March or early April, you can witness the cherry trees in full blossom.
Don'ts: what to avoid
Avoid Tokyo's Disneyworld, however, unless waiting in lines is your thing. Try DisneySea instead. On weekdays, visitors can often step directly onto rides without having to wait.
Roppongi is another place tourists are often recommended to visit for bars and nightlife, but it's an expensive way to spend time with other Westerners.
A better bar district is the downtown Shitamachi area, east of the Sumida River. Among the many secluded, exclusive retreats is Fust Carlent, just a short walk from the south exit of Shin-Koiwa station. Sipping a glass of bourbon from the extensive collection is a relaxing way to end a day's sightseeing.
Do: venture outside Tokyo
Just a few hours from Tokyo by train, Osaka provides a slower, more relaxed pace than the capital city and a different view of Japan. Home to the largest aquarium tank in the world, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is testament to Japan's long association with the sea. The aquarium, which displays 15 natural habitats, is designed to make visitors feel as if they're walking among the sea creatures. To get a special ticket that includes entry to the aquarium and unlimited travel on the subway, trams and buses for your city sightseeing, ask at a local Osaka train station. The aquarium is often closed during the last half of the Golden Week Holiday, which runs from April 29th to May 5th. Osaka is also the site of Japan's oldest temple site, Shitennoji. Top off the day with a visit to the Umeda Sky Building Floating Garden Observatory, where you can watch the sun go down over the cityscape.
Osaka's don't-go area
Though Osaka is a handy spot to see another side of Japan, there's one area that tourists might want to avoid. Kamagasaki is attractive to budget travelers because of its cheap accommodations, but it's also Japan's largest slum and home to several known organized crime syndicates. Japan on the whole is a very safe country to visit, but wary visitors to Osaka should pick a hotel in a different area.